By BOB HANSEN
Sunday, March 4, 2007
Burlington Hawk Eye
Burlington's Dan Ring is a splash of color in an otherwise gray and stormy March morning. His Day–Glo cycling gear provides him little protection from the elements or inattentive motorists as he wends along city streets to Southeastern Community College and his daily stint of explaining the inner workings of the human body for his students. But he is used to the trip.
While most of us grow exhausted simply thinking about motoring 6,000 miles a year, Ring annually logs that many miles commuting to his job as a community college life sciences instructor, running errands, working the knots out of his legs and touring the back roads of the Midwest.
Maybe it is the slightly bedraggled 10–speed bike he purchased in 1964 that keeps him young or his passionate curiosity about nature and its inner–workings that allows his 60–something–year–old brain and body to fire on all cylinders. It could be that he is one of those rare individuals that love what he does for a living. But something allows Ring to get approximately 27 hours of enjoyment out of the regular 24–hour day.
This Nebraska native came to this happy balance of personal, family and professional life in a round–about manner. He didn't set out to be a teacher since his undergraduate degree in zoology was to prepare him to be a wildlife biologist. But, when he went on the graduate school at Oklahoma there was an offer to become a teaching lab assistant. Money was tight then, so Ring jumped at the opportunity and made an important discovery about himself.
"It was like a light suddenly went on," Ring explained. "I realized I really enjoyed teaching and got a lot of satisfaction seeing the look on a student's face when suddenly he or she understood something. I was hooked and I have never looked back or regretted that decision."
That is not to say there might have been some moments when Ring questioned the life of genteel impoverishment awaiting college instructors. He remembered coming across a government document while at Marshalltown Junior College and learning that after 20 years of job experience and two college degrees, he and his family still qualified for food stamps.
"When I learned that, we decided it was time to move. Joyce, my wife, had just been downsized from her job so we started a job hunt and decided we would move to wherever the first one of us found a good job. Fortunately, that turned out to be SCC and Burlington," he said.
"Actually, we also thought about my getting a Ph.D. at Iowa State until we did the math. I was 47, so we figured I would be 53 by the time I got out, and it was unlikely that any university would hire me at that age. Besides, I would have debts until I was 80," he said with a laugh.
"The move to Burlington was a great one for us," he continued. "Joyce has a job she loves with the library and I enjoy the students and every day of teaching. Then we have this great North Hill bungalow overlooking the Mississippi and every morning I can step out and hear the sounds of the river and watch the birds. When I was growing up in Nebraska we lived across from a slough, so our home here takes me back to that."
If Ring seems to have an inordinate fascination with life, it is probably because he has come perilously close at least twice to seeing that love affair abruptly end. The first came when he was sidelined by a heart attack in 1990 — an especially cruel blow for an exercise buff who scrupulously monitored his own health.
"I remember that day," Ring said, "because I just felt so unnaturally tired. I usually have a lot of energy, but not that morning, and I had a 100–mile bike ride planned for that day and then was going to mow the lawn. Then, I walked by the mirror and was shocked. I was as white as I sheet. I had taught enough biology to know that something was really wrong and the doctor said I got to him just in time."
Then, there was the prostate cancer that hit in 2000. Ring opted for an aggressive treatment and he remembered that as he recovered in hospital, he noticed that most of his nurses had been his students, so he expressed a hope that they had paid attention in class.
Once recovered from the surgery, he piled his camping gear on his bike trailer and rode a circuitous route from Burlington to his class reunion in Wakefield, Neb., on a journey he called "life affirming."
Ring is contemplating embarking on yet another life journey, for in two years he will retire from teaching. But he is not contemplating a rocking–chair tour of his back porch. Instead, there is the dream of biking and camping from San Francisco to Burlington, perhaps books to write, photography expeditions and serious studies of the area's flora and fauna. While some people resign themselves to retirement, Ring seems determined to grab his retirement by the ear and shake yet another wonderful life out of it.